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Pause and rewind: Zimbabwe's audio cassette boom

From Robyn Curnow, CNN
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Zimbabwe's cassette culture
  • Cassette tapes are given a new lease of life in Zimbabwe
  • With little income, many Zimbabweans can't upgrade to CDs or MP3s
  • They opt for cassettes for their low price and durability

Harare, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- They might strike a nostalgic chord for music lovers with an ear for retro value but humble old cassette tapes are facing extinction in many parts of the world, left to wither in dusty closets in the era of MP3 players and digital downloads.

But in Zimbabwe, clunky audio tapes are still alive and prolific. Far from being outdated, they are the medium of choice for many Zimbabweans who are eager to get their hands on the latest music in an affordable way.

At the same time, they also provide a business opportunity in a country whose fragile economy has been in turmoil in the past decade amid record hyperinflation and international isolation.

Local record company Diamond Studios has responded to a growing demand for music tapes by opening a cassette plant in the capital, Harare.

It produces thousands of tapes each month and delivers them to music shops in Zimbabwe's towns and rural areas, as well as to Mozambique and Botswana.

Diamond Studios executive Phathisani Sibanda says cassettes can be profitable both for music labels and artists, helping in the fight against music piracy.

"When we started with the CD stuff, the CD was pirated a lot," he says. "At the end of the day the artist got nothing from sales, royalties -- nothing for the artist, nothing for the studios. So we decided to opt for the cassettes, [it's] hard to dupe them."

Somandlala Ndebele, one of Diamond Studios' best-selling artists, says he is astonished at how many audio tapes his latest album has sold.

You can use a cassette for about 20 years and CD, maybe you buy a CD it scratches on your favorite track.
--Phathisani Sibanda, Diamond Studios

"The cassettes is a big surprise to me, we have sold more than 10,000 cassettes -- no pirates," he says.

"CDs, they are very impossible to compare, there is a big difference," he adds. "Less than 500 CDs were sold."

Zimbabwe has been on the brink of financial collapse in recent years. Political uncertainty and lack of clarity in the country's financial policies pose major concerns for foreign investors.

With inflation and unemployment hitting record highs, many people in the country's cities and townships are too poor to upgrade to CDs or MP3 players.

With little disposable income, opting for a cassette is a matter of value for money for many Zimbabweans.

Sibanda says his customers want tapes because they last longer than badly produced pirated CDs, which is all most people can afford.

"You can use a cassette for about 20 years and CD, maybe you buy a CD and it scratches on your favorite track, something like that," he says.

For $2 or $3 people can listen to the latest music on a brand new cassette -- the same price as a pirate CD.

"Listeners prefer cassettes," says Joyce Simeti, another artist on the Diamond Studios roster.

"Most of our listeners, they stay in rural areas and they don't use those radios that play CDs," she adds.

Cassette tapes were first introduced in 1963. Their popularity rose in 1979 when Sony launched its low-cost, portable "Walkman" players.

But last year, the company stopped Japanese production of the cassette player as worldwide sales of physical music formats dropped by 14%.

Stuck with the soundtrack from a time of prosperity now long gone, the proliferation of the cassette tape in Zimbabwe is just another reminder of how broken the country's economy still is.